Category Archives: Archived

We Are All Sandra Bland

“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” 

– Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography

 

“For it is evident that those who regard the whole earth as their future territory will stress the organ of domestic violence and will rule conquered territory with police methods and personnel rather than with the army.” 

― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism  

“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose
the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually
we must do battle where we are standing.”

― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches  

 

This week a newly surfaced cellphone video of the arrest of Sandra Bland in July of 2015 was released to the public. Sandra took the video herself and it captures a far too familiar horror millions of people, especially the poor and people of color, endure every day in the US at the hands of the police. Stopped for failing to signal on her way to the grocery store, then brutally arrested, she was found dead only three days later in her jail cell, the apparent victim of suicide. But regardless of whether she physically hanged herself or not, her life was indeed taken by an entrenched system of white supremacy.

Sandra Bland undoubtedly understood what she was up against. She understood well the system that oppressed her. And perhaps she had understandably had enough. She asked questions about her detainment and, like anyone treated unjustly, she felt exasperated. When she was asked by the officer what was wrong she calmly explained this to no avail. When she asserted her right to smoke inside her own vehicle, and defy an unwarranted demand, she was yelled at, threatened with a taser that can be, and often is, lethal, violently thrown to the ground, and handcuffed. Her pleas for mercy and compassion were summarily ignored and ridiculed as she lay helpless on the warm, Texas grass.

Sandra Bland’s treatment is emblematic of the cruelty inherent to American society itself. A kind of sadism that permeates daily life especially in the disenfranchised precincts on the margins. There is an historical white puritanical impulse which should not be understated here either. It explains the frenzy of the lynch mobs of the past as well as the apologism for police brutality largely from the white middle class today. I saw this in the days following Sandra’s arrest and death. I see it time and time again following any incident of police malfeasance or violence. But I see it most especially when it involves the poor or people of color.

White, middle and upper class Americans, by and large, are conditioned to love and venerate their police state. In a myriad of ways it defines their national identity almost as much as the military. The police are seen as protectors of society, the supposed “thin blue line” against marauding thugs. So dissenting from this entrenched narrative is often painted as unpatriotic and even dangerously subversive. And defying often has deadly consequences. There is a mythology that reinforces all of this and it is reflected in popular culture. Hollywood perpetuates the notion that the police, prosecutors, the FBI, CIA, and other various “special agents” are simply upstanding people only interested in protecting the vulnerable and getting the “bad guy.” Corruption and abuse are almost always treated as anomalies. In this fantasy world there is no racism or class disparity that leads to crime, disenfranchisement or despair. Poverty is a footnote, if present at all. Programs and movies create a mystique around these institutions painting them with a brush of nobility, with little to no historical context whatsoever. An endless series of passion plays crudely divorced from reality.

Indeed, the bellicosity of the American Empire abroad is reflected in its domestic police forces. And they have been emboldened even more in recent years. A spate of State and Federal Supreme Court cases in the last decade have seen the courts come down almost unequivocally on the side of the police. In most states the police do not have any obligation to protect a citizen from harm. At the federal level, the Supreme Court has enshrined the right of police departments to conduct strip searches for any arrest. Statistically, there has been a sharp increase in the use of SWAT teams to address what most would consider to be non-violent drug offenses. And scores of police departments around the country have attained military hardware and tanks to carry out what appears to be a domestic war against the poor.

There is an endless list of cases like Sandra Bland and worse. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy gunned down in a park in mere seconds for playing with a toy gun. Mike Brown, shot and left out on the hot Missouri pavement for hours to die. Eric Garner, choked to death for allegedly selling cigarettes. Freddie Grey, Natasha McKenna, and Philando Castile, all are just a few names that gained national and international attention. But this racist societal framework affects poor white people as well.

Daniel Shaver was gunned down in cold blood in a hotel hallway after pleading tearfully for his life. Devon Guilford was shot to death by a state trooper for flashing his headlights in an attempt to signal the oncoming car that its bright headlights were on. Teenager Graham Dyer was killed by sadistic officers who tasered his testicles until he lost consciousness when he was handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. And then there was Kelly Thomas, a 37 year old homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia and was brutally beaten to death by three police officers in Fullerton, California in 2011. Despite his repeated cries begging for mercy, calling out to God to save him and for his father, and apologizing to the officers over and over, they continued to beat and mock him until he was completely unrecognizable and unconscious. This can clearly be seen in video and audio surveillance as well as through numerous testimonies of eye witnesses. Despite all of this, Thomas’s killers were acquitted.

In addition to the long list of ordinary people targeted there are a myriad of ways the American police state operates. Guantanamo prisoners and scores of foreign citizens who are locked up in one of several of America’s foreign gulags count among America’s disappeared. Asylum seekers and migrant families are being separated from one another and placed in concentration camps indefinitely by the thousands.

And there are many political prisoners as well. Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal and Chelsea Manning are just three who have gained international attention. Indeed, the US is a nation that cannot handle dissent, particularly when that dissent reveals the crimes of empire and its endless wars, identifies its real maladies in economic injustice or systemic racism, or comes from the oppressed castes of society. Others who dissented in this way were also murdered for it, from Fred Hampton, to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. It must be said then that Sandra Bland was also a Black Lives Matter activist, so her death should not be passed by simply as suicide without looking at this long and sordid history of brutal silencing, disappearing and suppression.

In truth, suicide is often the final respite of the tortured. Sometimes it is a slow death from drugs or alcohol, other times it is quick. But it is always a tragic punctuation to a lifelong litany of cruelty, dehumanization and humiliation. And for the oppressed and persecuted it often feels like the only escape. Sandra Bland was arrested for “driving while black,” but she was also brutalized because she dared to defy her dehumanization. She may have taken her life in that Texas jail cell. We may never know. But her life was most certainly cut short by an entrenched racist and oppressive system that affects people of color as well as poor whites, immigrants, Muslims, the mentally ill, LGBT, the homeless and anyone who defies their enslavement, dissents from the dominant power structure, or simply exists. And so it should be understood that under such tyranny we are all Sandra Bland.

Kenn Orphan   2019

 

To Be Hopeful in Bad Times

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.  And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” – Howard Zinn

 

Recently, I’ve been reading a few blog posts from those related in some form or another to the “environmental community” that appear to make a tiresome appeal for nihilism as a response to our dire collective condition. Some of them couch their apathy in the coded language of empathy, but it is really a thinly veiled sadism. In other words; “I feel your pain but I’m not going to do a damn thing about it. Even if I could it wouldn’t matter, and there is nothing you can do about it either.” There is also a sad kind of apologism for the world’s injustices laced in much of this nihilism, albeit in false, New Agey interpretations of Zen Buddhist principles.

One blog post I read recently said: “Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.”

In this line of “logic” the Holocaust, apartheid, war and war crimes, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, Native American and indigenous genocide, mass graves, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination, economic oppression, willful destruction of ecological systems by corporations, animal cruelty, racism, misogyny, and other kinds of brutality are all just “wondrous expressions of everything.” And the leaders and benefactors of such atrocities were merely “doing their best.” In a time of resurgent and aggressive global fascism, this statement is beyond appalling. It is downright dangerous. Unsurprisingly, I have found that the vast majority of the people who espouse such viewpoints are generally white, male, hetero, with some economic stability, who comfortably reside in the West or global north.

The same blog lamented: “I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless.” So much for recognition of the valiant efforts of the resistance to the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or Nat Turner’s rebellion against slavers. So much for any recognition of the mass movements for women’s suffrage or LGBT rights, or that ended the Vietnam War, or Jim Crow, or segregation, or child labour. So much for solidarity with those fighting for their lives and the lives of their children and the living earth today.

Today’s brand of nihilism is married to the rise of global fascism. They feed off each other in an insidious way that neutralizes opposition and dissent. When a people are denuded of their inherent value through constant demoralizing language, dispossession from the commons, and alienation from one another they become atomized, and thus fodder for the powerful to use in whatever way they see fit. Donald Trump is emblematic of this use of language. His scapegoating of vulnerable populations, ridicule, threats, and seemingly endless mendacity have the power to reinforce a quality of nihilistic passivity. Other leaders around the world are employing similar tactics to chilling effect.

Humanity is facing enormous existential threats, from the convergence of climate change catastrophe, nuclear proliferation, militarism, the degeneration of democratic norms, entrenched economic inequity, and biospheric collapse. And we as a species are not impervious to extinction. We are, after all, simply another species on this planet. One which is responsible for its current collapsing state. But this should not indicate that we are any less important than any other species either, nor should it allow for apologism for barbarity. Nihilism reduces evil to some fictitious philosophical puzzle. It is not. Therefore we should call this kind of rebranded apathy what it is: a cop out born of privilege, apathy and complacency. And its resurgence in an age of ascendant fascism is no accident either. It explains why activists and whistleblowers are being ridiculed, harassed, persecuted, and murdered around the world in record numbers by powerful forces who feel emboldened and unrestrained.

It bears reminding that most people of conscience do not enter into activism because it’s fun or glamorous. They don’t do it because they are saintly or because they will win either. They do it because they are forced to. Because of the endless litany of injustices meted out to them or those they love. Because they are conscious of what matters. And because they have literal skin in the game. They do it when their homes are being demolished by an occupying army, or when a corporation is building a dam that threatens their way of life, or when police are gunning down their sons and daughters, or when they see animals being mercilessly slaughtered for greed or status, or  when a military is torturing or drone bombing their weddings or funerals, or when an oil company is drilling in their fishing waters, or when a forest or mountaintop they love is being denuded or removed, or when they are refused or charged for healthcare or decent housing or education, or when they are treated as less than human because of their gender, or skin colour, or religion, or physical ability, or sexuality, or when they are treated like slaves for the profit of a few.

We all feel nihilistic and misanthropic at times. Every day, in fact. I know I do. It is part of the human condition to feel that way. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming one does not know how to handle it. So we should express that frustration and despair, facing our grief honestly as a daily practice, crushing and demoralizing as it is. And we should take care of ourselves in that regard. But I remind myself that most of the world does not have the luxury to sit and pontificate on how “futile and fruitless” taking action is when their lives and the lives of those they love and the living biosphere are being threatened with immediate annihilation via organized systems of exploitation.

Those who suggest we make peace with some notion that everything, including our existence, is meaningless do not take into account that as human beings we are the ones responsible for adding meaning to it. Of course that meaning is relatively subjective in isolation. But collectively it has the agency to affect real change. Meaning is born of suffering and it can lead individuals and groups of people toward solidarity, resilience, and true transformation. It can alleviate unnecessary pain, provide a balm to the wounded, salvage sanctuaries where life can flourish, and stop imminent destruction, atrocity or even war.

Taking action is not “futile and fruitless” as those unaffected directly by injustice or oppression would suggest. And although it will not end injustice, brutality or suffering for all time, we should remember that it isn’t meant to. As Howard Zinn made clear, we possess an agency that transcends the brutality of our times. Indeed, “winning” is not essential to it, neither is achieving some fantastical notion of utopia. Our defiance to barbarism is the victory, and this is where nihilism fails on all counts.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

 

Painting is Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Social Media and the Society of the Spectacle

“The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” 
― 
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
― 
Edward Bernays, Propaganda

“We think we’re searching Google; Google is actually searching us. We think that these companies have privacy policies; those policies are actually surveillance policies. We’re told that if we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to fear. The fact is, what they don’t tell us and what we are forgetting, that if you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing, because everything about us that makes us our unique identities, that gives us our individual spirit, our personality, our sense of freedom of will, freedom of action, our sense of our right to our own futures, that’s what comes from within. Those are our inner resources. That’s our private realm. And it’s intended to be private for a reason, because that is how it grows and flourishes and turns us into people who assert moral autonomy—an essential element of a flourishing, democratic society.”
― 
Shoshana Zuboff, author of Master or Slave: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization 

“Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.” 
― 
Edward Snowden

Recently I was rereading some of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. I was reminded of how essential this work by the late French Marxist philosopher is to today’s age of social media. Debord’s understanding of how the forces of capital shape our collective experiences and thoughts speaks to our time where algorithms dominate the trajectory of the psyche against a craven backdrop of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin has described as “inverted totalitarianism.”

Every day we are bombarded with the imagery of empire and capital. It is relentless. Our minds have become both a marketplace and a commodity to be traded. And it is a lucrative industry with Facebook and Google as prime examples. Their data collection and surveillance typify a conjoining of the state and capitalist economy; and they have carved out insidious new spaces in the human brain to coerce self-imposed censorship and conformity to the prevailing consumerist global order.

This social conditioning is a process which requires mass compliance. The infamous propagandist for industry and vaunted “father of public relations” Edward Bernays understood that. It takes time to manipulate the multilayered strata of the human psyche, especially in regard to large populations of people. But history is replete with tragic examples of its successful implementation by powerful interests. Today those interests lie squarely with capital and empire; but the effects are the same, distraction, censorship, alienation, coerced, compliance with the norms of the status quo and the numbing of the critical mind.

Debord said, “Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.” This profound observation is even more important today. The state, via mass media, informs us of the villains and phantoms they believe we should fear. Other, far more destructive, deadly and oppressive threats such as the continued proliferation of nuclear arms, catastrophic climate change, collapse of ecosystems, dangers to public health from industrial pollutants, vastly unequal, racist and brutal economic and legal systems, militarism or plutocratic tyranny can then be relegated as non-issues, or at least lesser ones.

Most people on the planet will not suffer or die from a terrorist attack, but they are very likely to be severely affected by the other issues mentioned above. Imagery on portable screens that virtually everyone in the West and around the world has access to communicates messages that may speak to some of these dire or existential problems, but they do so in an abstract manner that divorces the observer from the subject.

As Debord observed, this kind of culture of spectacle informs our personal relationships as well. Whether one is “present” on social media or not has become a sort of litmus test of ones presence in life itself. “Likes” or emojis have replaced and truncated language to such an extent that now older forms of communication are often looked at with novelty, suspicion, or even disgust. What’s more is that emojis in social media, particularly Facebook, have been employed all too often as tools of ridicule or even harassment of weak or vulnerable people. But what is perhaps the most striking about the current social media age is its repetitive narrative of self-aggrandizement. One so repetitive and hypnotic that it almost appears invisible. The “selfie” and “status update” are examples of the unending drive of social media to create a false sense of self to present to the world. Of course this self must conform and be well adjusted to consumerist society in one form or another lest it be tagged for “mental health issues,” subversive thought or behavior, or simply be rendered unnoticed or unimportant by society in general.

Indeed, I am certain Debord would be horrified at the age of social media. At no other time in human history has there been a greater confluence of authoritarian dominance or social control implemented in such an intimate and ubiquitous manner. Unlike Debord’s time, social media provides a new medium to not only socially condition the masses but for the corporate state to gather what was once private information about those masses via their personally owned devices and apps.

That it masquerades as a form of democracy is equally disturbing, especially since at its core it represents the policing of thought and dampening of dissent. He wrote as if penning a prophecy: “The spectator’s consciousness, imprisoned in a flattened universe, bound by the screen of the spectacle behind which his life has been deported, knows only the fictional speakers who unilaterally surround him with their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle, in its entirety, is his “mirror image.””

This spectacle reigns supreme in today’s social media culture. It is essential to its formulation and operating guidelines. Under such a paradigm history must be sterilized of analysis and ultimately atomized into unrelated instances to make an eternal present, divorced from any transformative potential. Therefore corporations and industries which have long records of polluting the environment or lying to the public about the safety of their products can continue to expand and even be celebrated by the corporate owned media. Religious institutions with long histories of abuse, patriarchy and repression can maintain their status as trusted institutions. The military can repeat the lie over and over that it is noble despite a history drenched in the blood of well documented atrocities and ongoing crimes. The United States and many other nations can keep calling themselves democracies despite quite obvious facts that strongly refute that designation. The mere notion of revolution then is made to be farcical or even dangerous. After all, how could revolution ever be seen as necessary within a democracy?

Social media does not necessarily signal the death of democratic freedom, but in its current form and under the aegis of capital it is certainly a nail in its coffin. This is because under such circumstances it is incapable of being anything other than a means for capital accumulation for the corporate state and a platform for its narrative, and it will do this through ever more invasive, censorial and repressive means. As Edward Snowden pointed out, people are less free when they feel that they are being observed. This is especially so when the observer is the state. Several studies have indicated that there is a sharp decline in certain online searches among the general public following any indication that government agencies are logging those searches, even if those citizens have not committed any crime. And the chilling effect is not unfounded. One incident involved an innocent couple who were visited by counter-terrorism police after searching Google for pressure cookers and backpacks. Since the internet has become the world’s public library, the implications for democracy are as dire as they are clear.

Unplugging from any of this isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily virtuous, but there are ways to divest from its social control personally and collectively. There are also ways to use it which defy its dominant algorithms. Détournement, which merely means rerouting or hijacking in French, is one of those ways. This involves inverting the imagery or messages of capital and empire to illustrate and even amplify their mendacity. It has a long history of effective use in bending the dominant narrative to one which reflects reality.

All of this is not to say that technology or social media are inherently bad, but to recognize that much of it has become a vehicle for a rather pernicious authoritarianism. And its danger lies in the fallacy of its benign appearance. Whether it be Google maps or one of countless other “helpful” apps one uses on a daily basis, surveillance capital becomes a means of controlling behavior, transactions, choices, as well as determining which members of society present a threat to the order. In other words, conformity is strongly reinforced while any form of dissent is rendered dangerously subversive. But although the algorithmic maps to our collective psyche are being endlessly drawn by programmers and their corporate and state masters, we still have the agency to navigate these landscapes with our eyes open. And indeed, the best tool we possess will always be that critically informed dissent the powerful so fear the most.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Below are a few examples of détourned ads and media:

 

We Have Always Belonged to Her

Some have expressed dismay that there is so much grief over the loss of a building and not over the loss of nature, or the biosphere, or of human beings. But why does there need be an “either or” response? Why do some human beings feel the need to limit the scope of their grief?

The razing of a primeval forest, the violent removal of an ancient mountaintop, the despoiling of a holy river, the unnatural death of a species. All of them wound the human psyche as well, and in far greater ways. These places are not venerated or preserved by the forces of capital except as exploitable property. Like Notre Dame, they represent our collective history and future. More than Notre Dame or any other human made structure, these places are the real world that we and countless species depend on for existence. But the fact that buildings and structures are reflections of the collective human psyche itself should not be downplayed.

Some have said that Notre Dame represented colonial oppression and feudalism. But indeed, the same could be said about the Imperial Palaces of China, the monasteries of Tibet, St. Basil’s in Moscow, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Akshardham in Delhi, even the ancient ruins of the Acropolis or Teotihuacan. All of them represent some kind of oppression, caste or injustice. And of course each of them should be understood beyond mere romanticism and in this historical context. Many of the colonial structures we see today were erected on the razed temples or cities of conquered peoples and were placed there erase that peoples history. A message of ruthless and brutal imperial supremacy. But there is often a tendency to reduce the power of place, that enduring spirit of loci, to fit places and their nuanced and complex meaning into neat and tidy narratives. What is lost is ambiguity, movement, and the very weight of human history itself.

To be sure, there are no shortage of hideous human made structures, ones that stand atop nature scraped of its life, convey alienation, brutality and raw power. Shopping and strip malls are one example. They reflect the cold and ravenous narcissism and insatiable cupidity of our age. Desolate places of alienation, where mind-numbing Muzak is piped through sterile, air-conditioned, cavernous tombs. Big Box stores are another. They squat shamelessly on seas of pavement. Former wetlands, meadows and woodlands raked and drained clean of their original inhabitants. Monuments to banality and a fitting sarcophagus for capitalist consumerism.

There are more examples, from suburban sprawl to tract housing to freeway exchanges to municipal buildings devoid of character. Places that are everywhere and no where at the same time. Over time, the meaning of structures often change. Events change them. People change them. Nature changes them. But some places and structures are imbued with grace from the start. They convey both a sense of place and connection with nature and an inexplicable transcendence from the repressive systems of their times. So their destruction or desecration can understandably leave a deep psychic wound especially in a world where the wounds appear to be piling up.

Any conscious visitor to Notre Dame would have understood it to be one of those places. They would have noticed its graceful curved lines which boldly celebrated the feminine as divine. Indeed, it was built on an ancient and sacred pagan site and I cannot help but wonder if the artisans and architects reflected this either consciously or not in their work. Any visitor would have taken time to sit in its gardens which carved out a sanctuary of nature in a city bustling with noise, chaos and pollution. They would have taken refuge under the watchful gaze of more gargoyles and chimeras perched on virtually every ledge than in any Harry Potter movie. They would have marveled at the number of depictions of the Virgin Mary, a striking avatar for the pagan goddesses, and an amazing thing considering the repression of religious patriarchy elsewhere. They would have noticed its symmetry and geometry as reflections of nature and the universe or multiverse that we humans inhabit, often unconscious of it all.

So the loss of this structure is perhaps a portent of our times. A time where grace, beauty and nature itself are under perpetual siege. The flames we witnessed devouring her tender spire and arched roof are akin to the fires that are devouring our fragile biosphere. She was a refuge, now scorched. How many others await a similar fate?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to draw from the symbolism of Notre Dame’s desecration. Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” was considered the mother of God. How often is our living earth referred to as our mother? So we need not have to pare down our grief over the loss of this sacred temple. On the contrary, we should expand it to encompass the entire imperiled biosphere. The soul devoid capitalist class may have claimed her smoldering ashes as their own, as they have done with the entire planet. But they are merely pale and pitiful shadows against her walls. Notre Dame is perhaps the best human made symbol for the living earth, and she belongs to no one. On the contrary. We have always belonged to her.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

 

 

 

On Burning Churches

I’ve seen a few supposedly leftist pages celebrating or laughing about the catastrophic fire that destroyed the historic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris today. One particularly loathsome meme inappropriately uses a Buenaventura Durruti quote which says “the only church that illuminates is the one that burns in flames.”

Really? Well then would these self described “leftists” say that burning Black churches in the American south is “illuminating?” What about mosques bombed by the US or its allies? Or the destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban? Or how about the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries by neo-Nazis?

One can criticize and condemn the institutions of authoritarian religion, its repressive and abusive practices, its patriarchy and hierarchy, and its systemic support of reactionary government and societal trends. But to not recognize the value of place, or culture, or history, or art, or community, or strength that many of these places engender is the height of hubris. And to celebrate their destruction lacks basic humanity and the principle of solidarity. In short, it is far from leftist. It is fascist. But sadly today too many can no longer make the distinction.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Photo is of a Black church burned by white supremacists in the American South courtesy of Getty Images.

A Land Uncharted

“The freedom of the press is not safe. It’s over. And I think our republic is in its last days, because unauthorized disclosures of this kind are the lifeblood of a republic.” – Daniel Ellsberg

The persecution and arrest of Julian Assange is the first and most definitive step toward full blown global fascism. The symbolism of a gravely ill journalist being manhandled by uniformed henchmen is the exact imagery it needed to send a chilling message to whistleblowers and the press. The assault and eventual dismantling of what remains of a free press has always been that first step, and it is what lies on the horizon barring mass dissent. For decades the mainstream media has acquiesced to the demands of the corporate world of high finance that now owns them outright and the military and surveillance state that informs their narrative. To be sure, many of them must be trembling at the events that unfolded in London.

That so many prominent American liberals are cheering this on is hardly surprising. History is replete with examples of how the privileged bourgeoisie are the first to capitulate to fascism. It happened in the 1930’s in Germany, Spain and Italy. It happened in the 1970’s in Argentina and Chile. It is happening now across the supposedly “democratic” western world. The animus they possess for Assange is not over his personal ethics, politics or affiliations, which are indeed open for criticism and debate. Like any human being, he is flawed. It is rooted in sore feelings over Wikileaks exposure of the machinations of the corrupt Democratic Party and their Wall Street favoured war hawk, Hillary Clinton. None of what Wikileaks revealed was untrue, but they blame the failure of their deeply flawed candidate on it nonetheless. They care little about the war crimes the platform helped expose through the courage of Chelsea Manning or the threat his persecution represents to press freedom itself.

That the fascist despot Trump has disavowed Wikileaks is hardly surprising either. After all, he may have used the leaks to his benefit, but the man who has relentlessly demonized the press will undoubtedly use this moment to his benefit again. Wikileaks as an organization isn’t perfect and, like any other media outlet, it is not beyond criticism. But nearly every major news outlet has used and published its material, without appreciation or gratitude, because it provided an unprecedented glimpse into the nefarious activities and guiding principles of the ruling elite. The veil had been finally lifted. But with the arrest of Julian Assange this makes all of those news outlets vulnerable to state or corporate repression and censure.

With the Trump administration chomping at the bit to launch a war against Iran and Venezuela, this must come as welcome news to them. After all, it was Wikileaks that exposed the war crimes of the Bush administration in Iraq, not the corporate media. So they can be assured little reporting, aside from a few courageous citizen journalists or those embedded with the troops who parrot Pentagon talking points, will be done to expose the Empire’s war crimes now.

Indeed, Trump has been given a green light with this one event to continue and expand the American Empire, moribund as it is, without reproach. And like a bloated corpse, it will undoubtedly infect and defile everything it touches. More brutal violations of the global south, more coups against democratically elected governments, and bolder acts of authoritarian cruelty at home. He has made no pretense of this. His minions, Pompeo and Bolton, are working tirelessly constructing the next war. And in the past several weeks he has purged his administration of monsters he deemed “too weak” when it comes to crackdowns against immigrants and asylum seekers. A classic tactic of all tyrants. He has anointed the rabid white supremacist, Stephen Miller, in this 21st century pogrom and has also toyed with the idea of making the military in charge of internment camps for migrants. Only a fool would not find such a thing chilling to the bone.

Indeed fascist leaders around the world, along with the military/surveillance establishment and their neoliberal enablers, are celebrating the silencing of Assange. After all, Wikileaks has represented a major thorn in their sides for a decade. From Netanyahu to Duterte to Bolsonaro to Modi and even Putin, all will be emboldened to expand their own attacks on press freedom. All of them will feel empowered to be even more unrestrained in their brutality.

We are on the eve of a sweeping, global, fascist tyranny. Thanks to the continued proliferation of nuclear arms, endless corporate and military assaults on the life sustaining biosphere, catastrophic climate change and the systematic dismantling of democracy, it is a land uncharted. Journalists, especially those who are independent of the corporate stranglehold, are being routinely and relentlessly persecuted and even murdered around the world. They are a bulwark against fascism we dare not lose. But the arrest of Assange is representative of a free press now under constant threat of annihilation. And it will without a doubt grow even more difficult for them to navigate through the mendacity of a ruthless ruling order that has become utterly unrestrained.

 

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

In Tribute to Blase Bonpane

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Blase Bonpane earlier this week. I remember hearing him speak in LA in the 1990s when I was doing an internship, and his lifelong antiwar and economic justice activism helped shape many of my values today and my worldview.

Beginning as a Maryknoll priest, an order known for their social justice stances, Bonpane applied his strong spiritual convictions to the material world. After going to Guatemala in the late 1960s those convictions transformed into what is now known as Liberation Theology, the joining of Christ’s teachings with real world political and economic inequality and injustice. It would become the subject of his doctoral thesis years later.

He witnessed firsthand the violence against the poor and indigenous by the rightwing regime which was installed in Guatemala by the CIA via a coup against the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954. This was done at the pleasure of United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) who would not allow economic reforms, let alone democracy, to cut into their enormous profits.

His political advocacy for the oppressed earned him the imposed silence of the Church at the behest of the rightwing Guatemalan government. But this did not deter his passion or his activism. He eventually left the order and gained notoriety for exposing the slaughter of thousands of Guatemalans by government death squads with the active support of the US government. He called it America’s “Latin Vietnam.”

A legendary critic of militarism, he condemned many injustices around the world from the Middle-East to Africa to Central America. He and his wife Theresa, a former Maryknoll nun herself, founded the Office of the Americas in order to confront both American Imperialism and political and economic repression in Latin America.

He wisely observed about American society:

“I think we have to deal with the ideology of militarism, because the militarism has become the very fabric of our culture. Militarism has no relationship to democracy. If it’s militarist, it is anti-democratic. And if we base our thinking on might makes right, we really don’t care about who has a claim to anything, and we don’t care about law. We become lawless. Our policy has been lawless in Central America, in South America, in Africa, in the Middle East. It has been lawless. It has been an argument and a policy of power and militarism.”

May he rest in peace, and may all people of conscience gain courage from his life and his convictions to oppose the brutal militarism and fascism we see rising today.

Blase Bonpane, présente! (1929 – 08 April 2019)

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Madonna Plays Apartheid

It may be difficult for some to understand the impact that a pop icon has on social and political events, but these cultural figures possess enormous psychological sway in the minds of millions. Their actions make a difference. So it can be quite jarring when one of those icons goes against the justified demands of an entire people, especially when they have been oppressed and persecuted for decades.

This May Madonna is set to perform two songs at Eurovision in Tel Aviv. She will reach an estimated 180 million viewers. She has moneyed backing too. Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams has pledged to pay $1 million dollars for her performance at Eurovision. And she will simultaneously flip the bird to millions of Palestinians who languish under a brutal system of colonial oppression, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Madonna is no stranger to this controversy. In 2012 she launched her MDNA tour in Tel Aviv against the urging of BDS activists.

There is a dark legacy of pop icons who play in places where there is rampant oppression or injustice. In the 1980s scores of artists played Sun City, a resort in the Bantustan state of Bophuthatswana. A state with limited autonomy created by the racist regime of apartheid South Africa in order to forcibly displace Black South Africans from their lands. Dolly Parton, Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli were among the big headliners there and reportedly received millions for their performances. In 2009, Sting reportedly got £1 million playing for Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the notorious repressive leader of Uzbekistan. He was unrepentant about that gig.

In 2015 Nicki Minaj played for Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the repressive president of Angola who has been widely associated with human rights abuses and corruption. But Minaj wasn’t fazed by criticism. In fact, she laughed it off and inadvertently exposed the real reason these artists play in such venues in the first place. On Instagram she posted a photo of her and the daughter of dos Santos saying “Oh no big deal… she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world…. GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!”

And therein lies the answer. Pop artists are products of an industry that is obsessed with wealth accumulation and privilege. In fact, they celebrate it as a virtue and promote the fallacy that wealth equates with liberation movements like feminism, personal success and agency. It is a fallacy that “motivates” them, as Minaj revealed. Indeed, the music industry, especially under late stage capitalism, churns out a banal formula for success, one deeply associated with wealth and power, uninterested in social, environmental or political movements. It shouldn’t be surprising then that most pop stars are consumed with this. They, like so many in the art and movie industry, are captivated by the excesses, bling and thrill of being connected with the powerful. Ethics be damned.

Many pop stars claimed in the aftermath of playing in repressive places that they were ignorant of the human rights, economic or environmental abuses. But Madonna cannot make that claim. In 2016 she paid $20 million dollars for a two story penthouse in Tel Aviv. She undoubtedly sees the headlines on Haaretz. She knows what is happening in that city to African migrants and refugees who are routinely demonized and persecuted by politicians and rightwing fascists. Migrants who are sent to internment camps in the Negev. She has undoubtedly heard about the Nakba and the refugee camps, and knows all too well what is happening now in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. She knows that Israel maintains a US funded army, navy and air force, and the Palestinians do not. She knows Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2007, subjecting nearly 2 million people to intolerable conditions that amount to collective punishment. Indeed, Gaza has been declared “unlivable” in many regards by the UN. She knows scores of unarmed protestors, as well as reporters and medics, have been gunned down in cold blood along the Gaza fence.

She knows about the checkpoints, settlements and the settler violence against Palestinian school children and villagers. She knows about the environmental terrorism of slashed olive trees and poisoned wells. She knows millions of Palestinians are subject to Israeli rule under the occupation without equal representation, the very definition of apartheid. She knows about the wall of separation that limits Palestinian access to their jobs, farmland, medical facilities and schools.

She knows Palestinians homes in the occupied West Bank are routinely demolished. And that scores of children are routinely whisked away in the middle of the night with no warning by the IDF, and taken to undisclosed detention facilities where they are often subjected to threats and violence and placed in solitary confinement, and then subjected to military tribunal unlike their Jewish counterparts who enjoy access to civil courts. She knows that Israel periodically flattens parts of Gaza killing scores of people with block decimating bombs and white phosphorus.  And she knows that under the racist Trump regime Israeli crimes against humanity have been given complete impunity.

In addition to this, Madonna knows this is not really about “building bridges of peace and understanding.”  She knows that there are millions of Jews around the world and many Israelis who vociferously and courageously oppose the occupation, apartheid and the continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians. People who are horrified at the fascistic lurch Israeli society has taken, especially in recent elections. People from organizations like If Not Now who represents Israeli soldiers who are speaking out about what they have seen and have been asked to do, and Jewish Voice for Peace who have implored her not to artwash or even pinkwash apartheid and to stand on the right side of history. She knows that there has been a call by Palestinian civil society for a non-violent boycott of Israel as long as it continues to commit these ongoing crimes. But she ignored them then, and she will undoubtedly ignore them now.

So for those expecting more out of Madonna they are bound to be disappointed. And this may be a hard pill for some to swallow at first. After all, I remember growing up and coming out to Madonna tunes. Her liberated sexuality and avant-garde style (at least in regard to Hollywood culture) was refreshing for a youth immersed in a society of puritanical repression and rigid social mores. In truth, I still listen to some of her songs on occasion when I wax nostalgic. Those icons represent a torch for many youth looking for a way out from under the boot of reactionary authoritarianism. But somewhere along the line something changes for most people with a conscience. The “icons” are forced to descend from their pedestals and become human, and like any human, they are understood to be subject to the enticements and corruption of coin and privilege. In truth, they cannot be expected to be anything more than a product of an ethics devoid industry and economic order itself.

Millions of people will watch Madonna perform at Eurovision, a European musical contest ironically being held in the Middle-East, Europe’s last enduring colony. She will present Tel Aviv as a bastion of European values in a hostile environment, surrounded by savages. Her message is a new branding for an old orientalism writ large for a new generation. One can only hope that her performance will cause some to dig deeper and see that human rights are either universal or they are nothing. And that there is no justification for playing apartheid. Not in South Africa 40 years ago. Not in Israel and Palestine today.

Kenn Orphan    2019

Crying Babies on a Plane

Crying babies on a plane. “Why me?” I mutter to myself. I’ve never had a baby. Indeed, I’ve never had a strong desire for progeny. But here I am, aloft in a hollow, metal, tubular nursery, hurtling through the lower stratosphere. Trapped amidst unpleasant (often unidentifiable) smells, cramped leg room, subdued existential panic, and those crying babies.
Then one of the little humans (who happens to be right next to me) reaches out a tiny hand and grips my arm. I try not to pay attention as I peer at my open book assiduously rereading the same sentence over and over, as if to memorize for an examination. Damn, I still can’t remember what I just read. I stay in my allotted sphere (a seat that I imagine was conceived and constructed by a small robot with limbs that can bend both ways).
My mind drifts to the spider monkeys I just saw days earlier. The one with her baby clinging to her back as she swung branch to branch above my head in the Yucatecan rainforest stands out in my memory the most. I reflect on the fact that they are among our closest relatives on this life drenched rock in space.
I feel a tug at my arm again and glance over to the little human seated next to me and she giggles, gurgles and smiles. Her mom jests, “Oh, she likes you.” I nod, “how old is she?” I ask. “10 months.” I smile and turn back to my book. Then I hear her father singing a custom made song to the little human to the melody of “Frosty the Snowman.” It sounds like “Luna the grouch-babe” or something like that. And Luna, the little human, grabs my arm again and giggles. Her tiny fingers pinch the hairs of my forearm. She squeals in a high pitch and flashes a toothless grin at me and her mother.
My mind drifts once again to those spider monkeys. Of their way of life. Of their threatened habitat growing smaller by the day. Of their family bonds and common aspirations for living. Of the fact that they are the only known spider monkey troupe left in this region of the Yucatan peninsula.
And I sigh and forget what I am reading again. I forget for a moment my impatience with being in this nursery of sorts. My misanthropic feelings ironically seem to dissolve when thinking of those monkeys while surrounded by the screaming infant voices of my kin. They fade into the ether of the airspace surrounding the metal tube I am lodged in while one of them gently pinches my arm.
“Why me?” I mutter to myself. “Why did that little human, the one named Luna, reach out to an oft jaded, old grump like me?” Then I smile to myself, check the time, and realize we are making our final descent. And I hadn’t even noticed.
Kenn Orphan   2019
Photo is a spider monkey in the Yucatecan Rainforest, by Kenn Orphan

Grieving in the Anthropocene

“Having a conscience now is a grief-soaked proposition” – Stephen Jenkinson, author of Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble

“We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”  – Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays

“The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”  – Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization  

 

A few years ago I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died and he had always dreamed of seeing the region; so we were happy we could do this one last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glimmering mountains of cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to a receding glacier. It was breathtaking, yet throughout the journey a specter of sorrow accompanied me.

In the West we are conditioned to chase those specters away. Grief itself is often viewed as something unnatural, as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by silencing ourselves, ignoring it or medicating it to numbness. We often hear well-meaning people suggest to the bereaved that they “keep themselves busy.” If our grief lingers, we are told that we are “depressed” or “not coping well” or that we need “closure.”

But like many others I have found myself encountering a grief that envelops my entire being more and more. An existential grief that cannot ignore our collective predicament as a species and that often accompanies a sense of panic and powerlessness. And I have begun to relate even more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an unheard anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of an omnicidal status quo. And so many of us feel that sense of terrorized paralyzation at the madness of rising militarism, fascism and brutality and an unfolding ecocidal nightmare. But so often we feel confined to an interior space that our culture has consigned us to.

Today we are bombarded with distraction. Our brains are flooded with carefully programmed and meticulously marketed algorithms that condition us to respond to screens rather than each other and the living planet. The dominant economic order robs us of our feelings, thoughts and even our grief and transforms them into capital and commodities for sale. Indeed, it is incapable of doing anything else. But many ancient traditions grappled with grief in a public way that was not exploitative.

Years ago, in Europe and in the Americas, those who were mourning the death of a loved one announced their grief to others by wearing a piece of black cloth around their arm or by placing a black wreath upon their front doors. Many indigenous cultures have elaborate rituals to mark the death of loved ones and the passage of bereavement. In the small fishing and farming community where my mother grew up every able bodied person was expected to follow the casket up to the cemetery in a solemn procession. And these public expressions of private grief provided a bridge of solidarity and community.

Now many of these traditions have been rejected or forgotten. They are vestiges buried by modernity; and in their absence a deep sense of alienation has grown. Facing our grief can be transformative. It can foster empathy and has the power to galvanize people to action. It cannot alter the past. It does not have the power to halt climate feedback loops or predict and prevent tipping points. And it cannot stop a looming biospheric and societal chaos that is all but locked into the system. But it can strengthen the pysche, offer us an insight into resilience, and give us the tools we need to resist the inhumanity that accompanies collapse. It can also help us appreciate and protect what remains.

I remember pouring over wildlife books when I was a boy, always dreaming of exploring their exotic locations in person one day. The natural world was at once terrifying and abundantly rich with mystery and wonder. Of course in those days I never thought I might witness its end. I never considered that the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world would succumb to a bleached death. I never thought that the Arctic Ocean would be ice free, or that it would rain in Greenland in winter, or that gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice would simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never imagined the Amazon Rainforest would suffer from catastrophic fires every year, or that 40% of wildlife would be sponged away from the living earth, or that plastic in the seas would be so ubiquitous that a bag would be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench. Now, decades later, I have witnessed all of that and more. This is the reality of the Anthropocene, so with all of this it becomes impossible at some point for any rational human being of conscience not to grieve.

But on that trip years ago I had the opportunity to meet grief face to face. I stood alongside my father in silent reverence at the nature before us. At the time I could not have known that he would not be with me on this earth much longer. Perhaps some other sense did. Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of awe that a child does. I also felt immensely small. My heart beat hard in my chest as I attempted to comprehend what my species and, in particular, my society has done to this precious life giving earth.  I felt the cold air from that melting glacier roll over me.  But this time I decided to not chase that specter of sorrow away. For a brief moment I wouldn’t view him as an adversary, but as a companion. So I embraced him like a long lost friend and he smiled at me and said, “What took you so long?”

Kenn Orphan  2019